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EU's New Competition Chief Could Shake Up Google Antitrust Case

Nearly 20 companies have filed antitrust complaints against Google in Europe since 2009.
Francois Lenoir
Nearly 20 companies have filed antitrust complaints against Google in Europe since 2009.

In Europe, Google has avoided the prospect of steep fines in a long-running antitrust case over several of the company's business practices, but a new commissioner will soon take over the case, and that has many wondering what Google could face next.

Nearly 20 companies have filed antitrust complaints against Google in Europe since 2009. The biggest of those by far is Microsoft, which has its own competing search engine, Bing.

"Microsoft has been driving these complaints from the very start," says Florian Wagner-von Papp, an expert on EU competition law at University College London. "Over here in Europe, Google has an enormous market share. Over 90 percent of all searches on the Web go via Google." (That's more than in the U.S.)

Shivaun Raff owns Foundem, one of the companies suing Google. Foundem compares prices for things like televisions and other electronic equipment. If you've never heard of Foundem, Raff says that's because of the way Google presents information when you search for something online.

"Google is manipulating its search results to increase its profit," Raff says.

She says Google does that by promoting its own price comparison services — like Google Shopping or Google's hotel and flight comparison services — while demoting competing companies like hers in its search results.

For example, if you're looking for a Canon digital camera, Raff says, Google's results yield "big links to Google's price comparison service that actually prioritizes which links it shows first by which advertisers pay Google the most."

And as Raff scrolls down in the Canon search results, no other price comparison site — like, say, her price comparison site — appears in the first page of Google's results.

"As you can imagine, that's an extraordinarily powerful technique that siphons vast quantities of traffic to Google's own services and that is crushing competition," she says.

An About-Face

Google was cleared of similar antitrust allegations in the U.S. last year, but in Europe, Google's practices are seen as a potential abuse of its dominance. It's been forced to submit three rounds of proposed changes to its search engine. Earlier this year, outgoing EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia appeared to have reached a deal with the company.

"I believe today that Google's new proposals are capable of addressing the competition concerns I set out today," Almunia said.

In its proposal, Google agreed to display links to rival services alongside its own search services. But the commissioner has since rejected the deal. He blamed further complaints from Google's competitors.

Wagner-von Papp says the about-turn may have more to do with wider European concerns about Google — like how much tax it pays in Europe and concerns about privacy and spying.

"It was more these unrelated concerns that led to political pressure from mainly Germany and France on the commissioner, which is something that is very unusual in these antitrust investigations," he says.

Under the new European competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, Google could possibly face more formal charges and potentially billions of dollars in fines. Vestager takes office on Nov. 1. Some European lawmakers have even called for breaking Google up into separate companies.

But Mario Mariniello of the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel says Google may have a big market share for no other reason than Europeans really like it. And he says there's a risk in forcing the company to change.

"The danger is you know you are essentially upsetting something that is actually working," Mariniello says.

Google did not respond to a request for an interview.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 31, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we incorrectly say that the share of Google searches in Europe is less than in the United States. It's actually more.
Christopher Werth

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